For nearly fifteen years, Rjyan Kidwell, better known as Cex, has been releasing albums that often defy easy characterization: from ambient, laptop electronica to hip hop and experimental noise. After several high-profile tours with the likes of The Postal Service and The Dismemberment Plan, Kidwell has, in recent years, stayed closer to home. Now 29, his most recent album, Tiny Creature, is a bit of a return for Kidwell: both to the electronic stylings of his earliest albums, and to Tigerbeat6, the renowned independent label he helped found. I talked to Kidwell via email.
SPLICE TODAY: Can you talk about some of your earliest experiences with music? Did your parents play any instruments? Was there a lot of music playing in the house when you were growing up?
RJYAN KIDWELL: My parents didn't play music but my dad would sometimes suddenly start singing in a really melodramatic way, sometimes along to the radio and sometimes just spontaneously. I don't know how many dads do this—I used to think they all did—but he'd get in me and my sister's faces and start singing at us. We'd freak out and tell him to stop; it seemed really embarrassing when I was a kid. But there was this kind of Busby-Berkley-meets-Ziggy-Stardust thing to it, like a normal person could suddenly pick up a microphone and look at the camera and "let it all out" that definitely showed up bigtime, I think, when I started playing live to big audiences.
ST: Even though they didn't play music, it sounds like your parents were
pretty supportive of all the stuff you were doing: playing shows,
recording music, etc.
RK: Yep. I remember them dropping me off at the Laff n Spit in Sowebo one time and having to talk my mom down from being majorly sketched. Which maybe she should've been. I remember a cop shot some kid up the street the second night there was ever a show there and a gang of angry dudes came down the street fuming, one of 'em bottled Chris Coady, I think.
ST: What were you listening to when you were you were a kid and into your teenage years? And when did you become interested in electronic music? Is there a particular album that got you thinking about the possibilities of electronic music?
RK: The first album I ever chose at a store myself was Faith No More's Angel Dust, after hearing Midlife Crisis on 98 Rock. Before that I would listen to 98 Rock & B104 pretty religiously. I remember when rap first started getting on the air, and waiting by the stereo so I could tape "Humpty Dance" and MC Brains' "Oochie Coochie" so I could study the tape and memorize the lyrics. In middle school it became important to choose a side though, and after the only two black kids I knew got expelled I decided to be a headbanger. I got Doc Martens and Countdown to Extinction and later on got really psyched about Tool. But I figured out by eighth grade that I wasn't really going to shine next to the tough guys whose parents would actually hit them, so I got into the weirder, sensitive-guy stuff that was on 120 Minutes, particularly the stuff that was from near Baltimore, like Jawbox and Shudder to Think. I started playing shows with a band that year, too, and in high school I repped local bands really hard, but also a lot of west coast lo-fi four-track rock—Sebadoh and Lync and Unwound. Moody shit that nobody at my school gave two shits about.
This was in the mid-90s and I was in Baltimore County so my parents got a PC from the mall. I remember being in Sears or something like that with some salesman talking about how me and my sister would need the computer to do homework, how there was an Encyclopedia CD-ROM that came with it and our grades would go up. We were way out in the county, too, close to Harford Co., and before I could drive I was way too far from my classmates, so I figured out how to use the modem and was calling BBSes at night instead of pool-hopping or smoking weed. I found out about electronic music (and trolling) on the BBSes. I bought an Aphex Twin album (Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2) at Record & Tape Traders and after that I just kind of randomly started buying any CD compilation I could find that had "ambient" in the title. The old An Die Muzik in Towson had a lot of Instinct Records compilations for some reason, and that was when I realized I didn't have to make music with other people, I could do it all on the computer myself. In 1996 I made 10 cassette "albums"—all either 60 or 90 minutes long, because that was the only blanks I could get—using a program I downloaded called Scream Tracker. I made covers for them at Kinkos and would try and sell them at shows, but pretty much the only people that bought them were kids in bands. I still played rock music but having to go through so many hoops—teaching people the songs I wrote, practicing them, learning their songs too, recording at a kids' house who had a four-track and mics—it was frustrating to me, so when Tonie Joy poached Guy Blakeslee from my band The Day of Man as Man in 11th grade, I decided doing solo electronic stuff would be my main thing.
ST: What sort of equipment were you using when you were working on
your first album, Cells? Do you ever listen to that album anymore? Are
there things that stand out about it now that didn't so much back then?
RK: [Laughs] There're some places where you can almost hear a neat thing trying to happen but those songs are pretty autistic. I can't remember the last time I listened to it, I think I have mp3s of it on a DVD-R somewhere but I gladly sold off every last actual copy I made. I don't think about it too much. I did it all on my parents' PC with Scream Tracker, using some samples I made recording a shitty Yamaha Porta-sound keyboard into the computer, but mostly with samples I cut out of other peoples' Scream Tracker files I snagged online. I was flipping the samples pretty fierce though, compared to what, for example, chillwave dills are doing today. I would never at the time have considered taking a whole bar—let alone four or more bars—straight from someone else's song, unless it was a break with just drums and even then I would have fucked those drums up ferociously. Tone-wise it's pretty grating but as far as striving to own all the parts, to flip them and twist them, I think it was an honorable effort.
ST: Can you talk about how The Day of Day As Man got started? How
did you meet Barrett and Blakeslee? You all had to be pretty young,
were you in other bands before that? Blakeslee at least has done pretty
well for himself, was there any resentment after the break up?
RK: No resentment, I don't think, but all the connections seem pretty amazing now. I was in a band called The Idea Men before that with Barrett and Shawn Phase, we played a lot of shows with Blakeslee's (amazing) band Behind Closed Doors, and self-released a 12". From eighth grade on I was in a couple bands that played at Laff n Spit, The Small Intestine, the #1 Club, Chris Freeland's church, Knights of Columbus halls and some house parties: one was The Superstation with Mike Apicella & Josh Marchant, just before they started Charm City Suicides.
ST: How did that split with Stars of the Dogon come about in 2003? That would have been, what, four or five years after The Day of Man as Man broke up?
RK: Ben Valis had curated tracks for a Small Intestine tribute compilation back in '98 that never got put out, and I guess he'd always liked the one we gave him, so when Stars of the Dogon broke up he had the idea to do a posthumous-underrated-bands-of-Bmore 7".
ST: What exactly was underscore records? When did you first meet Miguel Depedro and how did you two decide to form Tigerbeat6? Did it start out as a way to just sort of self-release your own stuff or was it more than that?
RK: Underscore was a label I did in ‘98, there were three CD-R full-lengths with kind of elaborate handmade packaging, and two 7"s before I put the label down to help with Tigerbeat6. I met 606 on the IDM-list, which was legit Internet, a listserv on hyperreal.org. Tigerbeat6 was always his idea but after doing an east coast tour together in '99 (also his idea) we got pretty tight and I pitched in with building the website and copy-editing 1sheets and hanging out on IM late into the night talking about what electronic producers were the shit and what kind of stuff Tb6 was going to put out. When he got signed to Ipecac he used his advance to start the label proper and asked Brad Laner (Electric Company) and I to do the first full-length releases. At the time we knew a lot of guys coming up making wild IDM or IDM-ish tracks—pretty much anybody who was any good at it in the US was either down with us or Schematic Records or both—so there was never any lack of stuff to put out, and still isn't!
ST: Are you still involved with Tigerbeat6 at this point—the business, that is? All of your mid-2000s albums were released on other small (or fairly small) labels, why the long departure from Tb6? Was it a financial thing or—I know it coincides with your move to Oakland—were you just trying to shake things up?
RK: I'll always be indebted to that dude for believing in me before anybody else, and I'll definitely be putting out more records with Tb6 in the future. I don't do anything with the biz side any more though—after Tall, Dark & Handcuffed I passed that on to others so I could focus on accidentally inventing noise-karaoke. I think shake things up sounds right, and my natural state is being fairly prolific and at the time there was enough interest for me to be able to spread stuff around and get more things out there than one label would really be able to handle.
ST: Let's talk about Tall, Dark & Handcuffed: What drew you to hip-hop? Were there particular rappers, maybe even local stuff, that you were listening to? And how did it change your touring and your live shows?
RK: In the late 90s, Timbaland and Mannie Fresh shook me up. To any man of the beats their stuff was unignorable. After middle school 92Q was the only viable radio station; all throughout the latter half of my teen years my friends and I were blasting club music in the car and at parties, and of course Rawkus and Outkast were kind of huge things for any music nerd then too. Also soon after I started playing shows as Cex I felt pretty self-conscious about just being involved with some stuff on a screen that nobody in the audience could see, or maybe even understand if they could've seen it, so I wanted to pander to the audience but still be just one guy on stage.
Coincidentally I got into improv comedy at college. I was practicing that six or more hours a week and doing at least one show a month with the group at JHU, so doing some ciphering on the side for fun was easy. I was friends with Mickey Free and Height and Jones and their Wounds crew, and they got me really pumped about crew jams. Besides them and some other friends—a crew of dudes including Tony Hilfiger, aka Joe Mitra, and AFP who would later be part of Food For Animals—the only real local rap that inspired me was Labtekwon, but he was funny and prolific enough that I probably would have been into him no matter what city he was from. He was putting out CD-R after CD-R and they seemed to be selling pretty good on the backpacker webstores like sandboxautomatic.
ST: Can you talk about Maryland Mansions and your other albums from 2003? That seems like a really crucial and prolific year for you: Why did you decide to leave Baltimore, and why Oakland? You were touring pretty heavily anyway, right, out on the road a lot, so why move at all? What eventually brought you back?
RK: Yeah, I got to touring all the time. It made my relationships here strange. I quit school because I skipped a ton of days my sophomore and first semester junior year to play shows and it didn't seem like it really made a difference to the school or the people there. But there were people in Germany and Japan and England that were so psyched to see me, to get me out there. So it wasn't a hard decision. I never drank alcohol until 2002—right before my 21st birthday—and I didn't really do drugs, unless somebody handed me a joint at a party. I had a lot of energy that needed to be directed into other things and I was really impatient with other people's hesitations and I had a lot of trouble cooperating, but no problem at all jumping into whatever potential adventure presented itself.
I went to Oakland to live with my best friend from college, who'd been in the improv group with me and who was from Cali and had already graduated. He had a kind of drive and discipline I was realizing was hard to find in people. I knew a lot of kids here with drive but it stopped somewhere—somewhere reasonable—but a place that I couldn't stop; like, the place where you start to imagine embarrassing yourself. It seemed obvious to me that this is where things started to get interesting—that there were a million kids out there who wanted to be on stage, who wanted people to listen to them, and that you only started culling the fameball brats from the potential heroes once you passed that place.
I came back to get a drummer. I had reached my limit with the one-man show and it was time to get other musicians on stage. I didn't really know any drummers in Cali that weren't attached to a heavily touring band. I was a little freaked out by how mellow every single last person on the West Coast was, too. I wasn't near old enough or high enough to appreciate that yet.
ST: It's kind of amazing to me that you avoided drugs and alcohol
for so long; even just considering the heavy touring, which I've seen
take a huge toll on some musicians. Can you talk about that some?
RK: A lot of things contributed to my attitude of superiority that made it easy to look down on people who needed alcohol or drugs to deal with life. A girl that I loved very much in high school had a mother with a serious alcohol problem, who wreaked a lot of terror on my friend. I went to school in the north county and it seemed that pretty much anyone who drank at all socially did it all the time, and not much else. There seemed to be a lot of parents who had that "better they do it here safely than out where they have to drive!" mentality, supplying the kegs, which creeped me the fuck out, and of course none of these kids were playing shows or doing anything creative that wasn't some boring adult's idea. I had no problem finding other things to do; I jammed with older kids from other schools, I rolled around town in weird costumes making proto-Tom Green videos with my friends, I crawled the BBSes of the 410 area code, I taught myself how to make sample-based music on the computer.
In college I was still okay with being a freak—the kids who were drinking still weren't interesting to me. And as a weird one-man band obsessed with confrontational crowd manipulation, I was a freak when I started touring, too. I think it was two weeks before I turned 21 that I decided I wanted to throw some monkey wrenches into my life and I started drinking. I did a six-week tour a month later that was kind of my refresher course, where I learned how to get wasted every night. A few weeks after that was when I packed up and moved to California.
ST: There were a series of tours in the early-to-mid-00s with some pretty big-name acts: The Dismemberment Plan, Death Cab for Cutie, The Postal Service, to name a few. How did those come together? You had a reputation for touring pretty relentlessly in those early years. At what point, and why, did you decide you wanted to be home more? How do you look back on those years now, because it seems like for a while you were really poised to reach a much bigger level of recognition and commercial success?
RK: I got stuck in the desert with Nice Nice and had a revelation: Getting over in music wasn't my goal, changing my culture was my goal. And going down the checklist, recording a new album, touring on it and playing a mix of the new stuff and the hits, going to SXSW, coddling cocksure journalists, none of that had anything to do with my personal goal. None of that stuff makes the world bigger, and that was my goal, to make the world bigger, to make more things possible, to bring more ideas into play. Strategically following precedents doesn't do that, setting new precedents does. It took me a long time to put the brakes on everything, but eventually I was able to. Being stranded unexpectedly in the desert for a week showed me that there were all kinds of forces moving in different trajectories than the one I had been wrapped up in—the "blowing up music guy" trajectory—and a few years later I was back in Baltimore and things were still like they were in the desert, and everybody who had had a stake in Cex was either alienated or moved on or aware that I was not interested in being a cookie-cutter hustler. It was really my choice what to do next.
ST: Okay, Tiny Creature: This marks sort of a return to Tigerbeat6 for you, right? Why the decision to release TC (and the Megamuse EP) on the Tigerbeat6 label?
RK: There's also another EP that's come out since the album—a Secret Monog EP/single thing just like Megamuse that's mostly remixes + two long exclusive new songs. But anyway, I've always been in touch with 606 and he came to visit last year. I'd been listening mostly to instrumental electronic music again and it just kind of seemed the right material and the right time to see what would happen if we teamed up again.
ST: One of the first things you notice about TC is the length, just shy of 80 mins; I know you're always challenging yourself with each new album, so was this a deliberate attempt to find out just how far you could stretch your beats and your song structures?
RK: Well, the other big thing in my mp3 stack last year was bleak ambient black metal tunes. I was super intrigued with epic brooding stuff like Burzum's "Trip around the transcendental pillar of the singularity" and Marblebog's Wind of Moors. At this point, making long songs is much easier for me than making short ones, so it was more about pushing the listener than pushing myself. But I see Tiny Creature as being like personal soundtrack music—some of my most potent associations with music are from wanting to be alone, or having little other choice, and wrapping my solitude in an evocative aural panorama. I see the way that the Internet has effected underground music: making it more of a foreboding choice for kids to write at all for the experience of the individual—you don't rile up warehouses full of MICA kids that way, you don't get people blowing up Facebook, it's not "buzz band" behavior, etc. It's a social currency now and broodbucks don't go far in the marketplace. I think knowing that a potentially huge audience for your tunes is right around the corner is herding musicians toward a lot of contrived positivity; a lot of Stepford Wives-y enthusiasm. I can't do anything with happy music—if I want to feel happy pretty much every movie at the multiplex, every song on the radio, every television show will deliver that to me instantly. I need a lot of subtle, evocative music to score all the brooding I have to do and it seems to be getting harder to come by, so I'm just making it myself.
ST: Can you take us through your songwriting and recording process? When you start working on a new song or album, how much of it is sort of structured improvisation? How do you know when an album is finished?
RK: The process changes. I'd say that what makes an album "finished" is when I start to feel diminishing returns from whatever process I've been using and focus on editing recordings instead of making new ones. Since Bataille Royale, though, the general idea has been to jam by myself on old, cheap hardware and record multi-track files of the jams on the computer, then go back and cut down the jam, vertically and horizontally, until it's a song. I don't run tape right away, I usually sit for two-three hours tweaking patches, putting together drum kits, figuring out which effects I want available with what settings, then I'll make little patterns and melodies. Once it begins to sound like there's enough promise, I hit record and try to mangle the hell out of that foundation, to twist it until narrative elements appear in the music—climaxes and breakdowns and tension and all that. It's a total collaboration with the machines. I might have something in my head, either a tone or a melody or effect or a feeling, but I try to be as flexible as possible so that I can make best use of the suggestions that the machines inevitably put forward. It's a balancing act between the conscious and the unconscious. I'm not a believer in "noise," I don't think that just letting your lizard brain run unchecked can produce much of any value, but I've also been making music for too long not to be fatigued by total control, not to believe that the best things always have some element of ignorance in their genesis.
ST: You've been around the scene for about 15 years now; with
Baltimore's venues always moving, closing down, etc. are there venues
you miss, venues that aren't around anymore where you played really
great shows or where you saw really great shows? How do you think
Baltimore in, say, the late 90s compares to Baltimore today?
RK: Today is insane compared to then; like a different planet. You used to have to wait sometimes two or three weeks for a decent DIY show to happen. Now you have to choose between two or three shows a night more nights than not. The Small Intestine only lasted about a year, Laff N Spit maybe slightly longer than that, I think. I loved those venues but they were part of that time and they wouldn't make sense now. There was something about the fact that we knew they wouldn't be around forever that made what happened there so powerful. Right now, though, it doesn't look like the city will ever go back to that. There're just too many bodies interested in being on stage, or being behind the scenes making a show happen.
ST: A lot of what you've been doing lately is pretty Baltimore-focused: DJing at Deep in the Game, the collaboration with Jason Urick, etc. Has the scene of the past few years—the Wham City Crowd in particular—been an inspiration for you?
RK: Yes. As much as I think a serious amount of solitude is the most important element for learning how to make or listen to music, I also think it's good to have people nearby you can watch hustle over time. I'm a big believer in the value of healthy competition in the arts. The world subjects us to so much intrusive stimulation—I think most people would say it's one of, if not the most defining aspect of our particular era of history thus far—and I think it's impossible to keep your mind evolving if you don't have a dialogue with the world. I get a lot of inspiration from analyzing the messages of the musicians around me and trying to make sense of the patterns in those messages; how they are delivered and responding. There's been a lot to digest and parse and reply to here lately, it's great.
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